It's official: The Multi-Cultural mural painted on the side of the state's historic Halpin Center building on Montezuma Avenue is coming down. The mural was painted by Chicano artist Gilberto Guzman and others in the 1980s and 90s and depicts a scene that represents parts of New Mexico's Native American and Hispanic history.

And, it has been at the center of a controversial debate about the design of the Vladem Contemporary, a new branch of the New Mexico Museum of Art slated for groundbreaking at the site in 2020.

The fate of the mural once again became a central topic of discussion at a city Historic Districts Review Board Meeting Jan. 2 in which board members gave a green light to the project. State law calls for consultation with the local jurisdiction, and an earlier review drew criticism.

This time, the board praised the state's efforts to address the concerns of both its members and the public, but maintained that the mural should be remembered in what comes next. One possibility the board suggested was a digital projection of the mural onto the new blank wall.

"I think this original mural is a part of our history that we want to keep in some way shape or form," said board member Anthony Guida, "but we could actually bring this building into the future and celebrate the culture of public murals in a new way in a very prominent location."

In response to complaints by city residents and H-board and after it changed course this summer and submitted plans to for its own state-level historic review, the museum altered the design of the building to make it somewhat smaller, added an open air terrace at the southwest end, removed an unpopular metal scrim from two sides of the building (while leaving it on the north and south end), and worked to make the original historic building stand out more. But they say the mural can't be saved.

The 1930s Halpin Building and its 1980s mural today from Guadalupe Street.
The 1930s Halpin Building and its 1980s mural today from Guadalupe Street. | Anson Stevens-Bollen

Michelle Gallagher Roberts, acting executive director of the New Mexico Museum of Art, tells SFR "it's actually just not possible" to restore the mural. "Anything we do would be a short term fix," she says.

Gallagher Roberts says the museum's chief conservator, Mark MacKenzie, and a conservator out of Denver who specializes in murals, both assessed the piece and advised that Multi-Cultural is in a state of disrepair beyond conservation.

The problem is complicated, says Gallagher Roberts, by the fact that the mural was first painted in 1980 by a group of artists that included Guzman, who repainted it in 1990 on a commission by Absolut Vodka—a deal that caused its own controversy at the time.

Guzman left some parts of the original without retouching them at all while changing other parts of it to the point that it "can't really be considered the same mural as the original," says Gallagher Roberts. This creates a challenge for conservationists because different parts of the mural have aged at different rates and would require different treatments.

The mural is also painted directly on the stucco on the side of the building, and Gallagher Roberts says the stucco itself is falling off the building, and that there is no way to easily reattach it. "In some places the paint of the mural itself is actually the only thing still holding up the stucco, which has completely peeled away from the all behind it," she says.

Gallagher Roberts said the museum plans to replace the mural with some other form of public art. Yet residents who were invited to comment at the meeting wanted a more concrete assurance that cultural element of the mural is preserved in whatever comes next.

One woman who spoke at Wednesday's meeting, Barbara Fix, tells SFR "the 1990's was the first time Hispanics were no longer the majority in Santa Fe. The mural comes from a time before that, it is a reminder of that time, and it is from a political movement that is important and should not be lost."

Fix adds that whatever comes next should honor its history and "involve the public."

Rick Martinez, a friend of Guzman's who says he has helped the artist advocate for preserving the piece, said Guzman would like to see a small version of the mural painted on the wall to replace the old one – something small, touchable, and a visual nod to the full scale work that was there.

"As a Chicano growing up here, Chicano art is really important to me, especially to have in public spaces," Martinez says. "If we lose that part of our culture, its gone, there's no getting it back. Your just gonna have regular murals that don't represent us. These murals are a representation of real localism that we are losing."